I enjoyed Michaeline’s post yesterday, about her love of secret passages and rooms, trap doors, hidden compartments and all kinds of mystery architecture. She loves them as a reader, so she likes to incorporate them into her own stories.
She set me thinking.
Mystery architecture is a wonderful tool for storytellers. There are so many good examples, but below are a few of my favorites.
The hidden basement and secret shelter in Jenny Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman.
The smugglers’ cellar and well-oiled trapdoor that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses to sneak into locked-down Edinburgh in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.
Another smugglers’ construction— the concealed tunnel between Darracott Place and the haunted Dower House in Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax.
All kinds of hidden delights, from ancient temples to sneaky palace passageways, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its four sequels.
I like all that undercover stuff, but what really thrills me is an insider story. When I see a swan gliding serenely along, I want to see the feet paddling like mad under the water. I love, love, love to watch characters working on their craft. I need to share their setbacks, mistakes, failures and ultimate triumph. I like to write those stories too.
In real life I love it when restaurants offer a chef’s table so diners can watch the kitchen in full flow. I really like that pro tennis has been experimenting with allowing players to talk to their coaches mid-match—and we all get to hear their discussion. And some of my best trips to the Royal Opera House have been to watch working rehearsals, or to see costumes being made, props being constructed, and choreography developed. To give you an idea of what I mean, click here for a ten-minute video of the Royal Ballet working flat out on the big sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.
One of my favorite movies ever is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom—double dealing, dirty tricks and the private language of competitive ballroom dancing. Christopher Guest hilariously gives dog shows the same treatment in his mockumentary Best in Show. And for books, what about:
Faro’s Daughter (Heyer again), where the heroine is a gambler’s daughter who runs a fashionable gaming house with her delightfully clueless aunt; or
Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—half-goblin Maia loses his entire family in an airship crash and unexpectedly becomes Emperor. He has no training, no allies, and seems an easy target for every ambitious, manipulative, scheming courtier in the palace. Maia outwits them all by learning the system from servants, soldiers, airship crews, and other ordinary people that make his world work.
A hairdresser friend of mine once told me he’d never book a chef’s table. He’s spent his entire working life behind the scenes and he knows exactly what happens. When he reads a novel, or goes to dinner, or to a movie, he wants a finished product, all glossy and shiny. He’ll take the fairy tale presentation every time.
Where do you stand on insider stories? Are you a fan, or would you rather sit the other side of the curtain, watching the action from the plush seats?
I loved that clip from the Royal Ballet. Talk about competence porn! When I was much younger, I took fencing for a while. I was terrible at it; it’s much more difficult than it appears, imo. To see these dancers fencing and dancing at the same time was truly remarkable.
I’m of mixed opinion about the enjoyability of secret passages. I dislike basements to a huge degree, so underground tunnels and basement hideaways (like in Agnes and the Hitman) don’t offer a secret thrill for me. I do like secret passages behind walls—they seem to provide enough scariness with their darkness and disuse without having any particular creepy overtones for me. Sometimes they seem to be mechanisms for writers when they don’t know where to go with something—a crutch, like the “man with the gun” or “write in a dog”—but they can be fun.
So glad you enjoyed the clip! When they do that fight in the ballet, with crowds and props and whatnot, it looks amazing. I should also have said that the ROH has a working armoury and makes its own weapons–swords, crossbows, you name it. There’s a video for that too. More competence porn! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Udky9dyGoFw
I hear you about basements, though I really like the one in The Game of Kings. Lymond has to sneak into fortified Edinburgh, so he swims the loch in the wake of a smuggler’s boat and follows the crew into the basement of a seemingly respectable townhouse, where his men execute a perfectly-planned and hilarious diversion and then, for an encore, steal all the contraband.
Secret passageways behind walls and disguised doors were a Thing in many stately homes, to allow servants to come and go without disturbing the gentry, so I’ve never found them to be much of a stretch. I like the one in Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia (I think), where we (and the protagonist) discover that the hero wasn’t where we thought he was for a goodly portion of the book.
Maybe we should add ‘insert mystery architecture’ to that great list of writing prompts you found the other day ;-).
This post makes me think about when I was a kid and my dad and I would go to father-daughter dinners at our local church. There were often magic shows as part of the events and I remember what a letdown it was when one of the magicians showed how some of the tricks worked. The mystery is what made the magic fun to me. Once I knew how it was done, that “magic” was lost.
In other cases, I do like “behind the scenes” things. I loved the documentary I saw on the making of Hamilton, for example, and I’ve always liked those behind-the-scenes/out-take reels for movies.
That’s so interesting, Elizabeth. Sad for you and for the magician, thinking he was doing you a favor and spoiling your fun. I bet if that magician showed me how the tricks worked, I’d have been thrilled. For me I think it would have been even more fun knowing how it was done and watching everyone else ooh-ing and aah-ing.
I love behind the scenes stuff. I’ll watch the movie first, but you can bet if I enjoyed the movie, I watch the extras that show how it was made — then watch the movie again to see how it happened! I especially love extras that talk about writing process, and how a scene came about — or a blooper reel that shows the dozen ad libs that didn’t make the final product.
That’s one reason why I had a hard time wrapping my head around “info dumps are bad.” I really like an educational and entertaining infodump.
I guess my fondness for “behind the scenes” is one reason I like the blogs I do . . . they often show the process and it’s fascinating in its own right!
When I was a kid, the girl who lived next door and I constructed a tiny tunnel under the fence that ran between our yards, just big enough to leave notes for each other. It was great until the morning I reached in to collect her latest missive and came back with a handful of garden slugs. Even the memory makes me shudder.